Unleashing Creativity – The Leadership ‘X’ Factor for Solving Tough Problems

As CEO of a creative services firm, Steve has lived with the issue for 13 years. It’s the tyranny of continuously generating billable hours. This service business model can be feast or famine as client demand ebbs and flows.

What nagging challenge have you lived with far too long?

On what problem would you love to unleash ingenious creativity?

Creativity Proposition

Every leader can unleash ingenious creativity by embracing one leadership ‘X’ Factor.

Leadership Creativity X-Factor

Leadership X-Factor for Creativity
Photo Credit: Todd Kemp

In a recent coaching session I asked about this challenge. Steve said he’d love to solve this, but how? Where to start? He asked for help. I agreed to facilitate a creative problem solving session for his team.

Thanks to the Creative Problem Solving framework in Gregg Fraley’s book Jack’s Notebook, we helped Steve’s team identify fresh solutions. He said they’ve “reinvigorated” the team and will likely increase performance.

The Leader’s Creativity Problem

As leader, would you like to harness more creativity to solve the tough issues?

Let’s face it: other people solve easy problems. Tough challenges end up at your doorstep because you’re the leader.

That’s why 60% of CEOs in a global IBM study of 1,500 CEOs from companies of all sizes and industries cited creativity as the most important leadership quality.

I see it differently.

Is creativity vital to a CEO’s leadership and company success? Certainly.

They ignore a vital prerequisite for unleashing team creativity, however.

Steve, CEO of the creative services firm, ironically, wouldn’t side with the 60% of CEOs surveyed. Working with him, I see that Steve has the ‘X’ Factor that unleashes greater creativity and other key cultural traits.

Unleashing Creativity – The Leadership ‘X’ Factor

Steve has it. The CEOs who gather monthly in our peer advisory forum have it.

Jim Collins’ research team identified this leadership ‘X’ Factor in his seminal bestseller Good to Great.

Yet 88% of CEOs in the 2010 global study ignored it, ranking it dead last!

Innovators at AT&T’s Bell Labs who held the most patents had it.

Executives and associates at IDEO, a global design consultancy, are exemplars of the ‘X’ Factor. (See Harvard Business Review, January-February 2014, p. 53.)

Sadly, the ‘X’ Factor is readily ignored in many leadership circles.

Abraham Lincoln practiced it with aplomb. Consider these words written by the President of the United States to an up-and-coming leader:

When you first reached the vicinity of [your objective]… I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong. (Lincoln on Leadership, p. 104.)

Lincoln penned this letter of commendation to a victorious General Ulysses Grant during the U.S. Civil War.

Leadership Benefits of the ‘X’ Factor

The ‘X’ Factor enabled Steve to ask his team for help. Consequently, he gained fresh insights into long-standing challenges which reinvigorated his team.

The ‘X’ Factor causes like-minded CEOs in our peer advisory forum to seek help. They solve their tough issues and grow as leaders.

Evidence for it wouldn’t be ignored by Jim Collins. It is distinctive of Level 5 Leaders who built enduring great companies.

The ‘X’ Factor helped unleash vast innovation at Bell Labs.

It’s intentionally built into the culture at IDEO and drives innovation for clients.

The ‘X’ Factor marked President Lincoln’s leadership and helped his leaders achieve new successes.

The ‘X’ Factor and You

What problem could the ‘X’ Factor help you solve?

What issue confronts you, that if solved, could be a game-changer for you?

When you embrace the ‘X’ Factor you increase your capacity for exceptional leadership. With it, you harness the innate genius of your collective team.

What is the ‘X’ Factor?


An ancient proverb states: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.

Doug Guthrie, professor of International Business and Management at George Washington University, writes in a recent Forbes article:

 In the end, what we teach about leadership in business schools simply does not prepare students for leading, because we ignore the importance of humility in business and beyond.

Leaders who embrace humility can unleash ingenious creativity – and much more!

In what ways have you experienced authentic leadership humility, or lack thereof, and to what effect? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

How Healthy Leaders Respond to Evil – Arapahoe High School

Ten police cars zoom past me on the freeway with lights flashing. A few minutes later I arrive at my next meeting as I receive a text message from my daughter’s high school: “Based on the unfolding situation at Arapahoe High School, our school is in a lockout situation.”

What “unfolding situation?”

how healthy leaders respond evil arapahoe high school

Arapahoe High School Students Evacuate – December 13, 2013
Photo Credit: 9News.com

I tell the CEO whom I had come to meet about the message I have just received. Our daughters attend the same school not far from Arapahoe. We quickly tune in to a news channel to see live video of students running away from the school where a shooter has carried out yet another attack at a school.

I dash out a text message to my daughter who had been taking a final exam: “Where are you?” Send.

My son, at a middle school in the area, would still be in school and not allowed to use his cell phone. The district website confirmed his school was in lockout.

The Longest Minute

Have you ever brought a child into this world?

My mind flashes back to bringing them home from the hospital as newborns. My chest swells with a protective love for both of them. I am reminded in that moment, that I would give my life for them.

After a long, long minute, at 1:27pm, my phone lights up with a text response: “In the car with mommy. I’m ok :)”

“Ok good. I love you.”

“Love you!”

The Problem of Evil

At times like this, many of us feel powerless. It’s natural to ask why such tragedies happen. We may wonder where God is in all this. However, we shouldn’t be surprised when evil is wrought on this fallen, rebellious world. Grieved, certainly. Surprised? No.

Who among us loves everyone perfectly all the time? None of us do. If Augustine’s view of evil is true, that evil is essentially the absence of love, and if we all harbor a lack of love for others at times, then our own hearts have a tendency to give way to evil, even if in imperceptible or subtle forms.

A sneer. A harsh word not spoken in love. A white lie. An angry, dismissive gesture.

Such attacks at Arapahoe High School, Sandy Hook Elementary, Columbine High School, the Aurora movie theater and elsewhere, are at the very least, extreme expressions of the discord rooted in our own hearts.

One of the more intelligent treatments of the problem of evil that I’ve read is by scholar N.T. Wright. His lecture on the subject “Where is God on the ‘War on Terror’?” distills some thoughts from his excellent book, Evil and the Justice of God.

How Healthy Leaders Respond to Evil

A quote often attributed to 18th century Irish statesman Edmund Burke, reads:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

So how could we respond? In my experience, study and observations, healthy leaders respond to evil in times of crisis in four ways.

1. Healthy leaders accept the reality that evil exists in the world.

Healthy leaders are not caught off guard by negative reality. They adopt a sober view that both celebrates the goodness of creation and, as Wright suggests, “at the same time, understand and face up to the reality and seriousness of evil.”

2. Healthy leaders submit and pray.

The CEO with whom I was meeting that afternoon prayed right then and there in his office as the events unfolded. Healthy leaders recognize their own powerlessness to single-handedly combat evil and choose humility, not revenge. They submit to and call upon a power that is able to guide, protect and mend in the midst of darkness, trauma and pain. As a result, these people draw strength from God who has wired them for connection to Himself.

 3. Healthy leaders act quickly to protect life.

Upon entering the building, the shooter asked for a teacher by name. According to Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson, the teacher, alerted to the situation, quickly left the school in an attempt to draw the student to follow him away from the school. Robinson lauded the move as “the most important tactical decision that could be made.” Local law enforcement were praised for their quick response at Arapahoe, entering the building within a few minutes of the initial attack, based upon protocols established in the aftermath of the events at Columbine High School in 1999. Healthy leaders act quickly and decisively to preserve and protect those under their charge.

 4. Healthy leaders grieve their loss.

In addition to being an example of a positive, energizing and inspiring force, leaders face the essential of handling loss and sadness. “Sadness is the emotional signal of the reality of loss,” writes Dr. John Townsend in his book, Leadership Beyond Reason. He continues, “The main reason I think leaders have a particularly hard time with this emotion is that sadness means you are helpless to change some reality. Leaders resist helpless situations.”

“Sometimes just ‘getting over it’ will make things worse for you over time. If you have lost something or someone important to you, you will most likely have sad emotions about the loss. It’s best to give it the value it deserves by allowing some time to be sad. It will do you good, and you will move on from there.”

Cherish Them

Upon my return home December 13, 2013, both my teens greeted me at the door as we gave each other big, long hugs and exchanged “I love you’s.” Cherish your loved ones each day, for tomorrow is promised to no one.

Questions: In what ways have you experienced leaders responding to negative reality? How did it impact you? You can leave a comment by clicking here.